Joseph Austin Benwell (1816-1886) Orientalist Artist and Traveller

Joseph Austin Benwell (1816-1886) could perhaps be described as a quintessential Victorian. From a religious Quaker background, he was primarily an artist in the 'orientalist' style. Many of his paintings and engravings were based on his travels in the Crimea, the Middle East, China and India, often featuring camel caravans and Arab scenes in the days before photography was widespread. 

In the 1850s, before he took up  painting, he was noted for his engravings and drawings of local characters, customs and scenes of Indian life. It is known that Benwell entered the service of the East India Company in the early 1840s, possibly earlier, and was based in Calcutta (now Kolkata). At around this time he also travelled to Burma and China, before returning to England in about 1850/51. It seems that he travelled to India again sometime between 1856 and 1859 when he worked as an artist for the Illustrated London News. He later travelled to the Middle East (then known as The Orient) including Egypt, Syria, Palestine and the Holy Land, and also North Africa (overland from Tunisia) between 1864 and 1866, where he focused on creating drawings and sketches to use as the basis for many Orientalist watercolour paintings.

'A Rest before the City Gates'
Bedouin Caravan in the Desert

 'Bedouin Caravan in the Desert' 

Joseph Austin Benwell portrait J A Benwell

Joseph Austin Benwell 1816-1886  (Image courtesy of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery)

Benwell's depiction of Florence Nightingale as the Lady with the Lamp ('Sketch of a ward at the hospital at Scutari', c1855) is arguably one of his better known works, but he also produced numerous black and white engravings and woodcuts, illustrating several books including 'The Three Presidencies of India' (1853 by John Capper), and 'Our Indian Army, a military history of the British Empire in the East' (1855 by Captain Rafter). 

Benwell worked as an artist for the Illustrated London News, regularly contributing engravings of mainly Indian scenes between 1857 and 1864. In the 1850s and 1860s he also produced many illustrations for the  the Cornhill Magazine, the Welcome Guest (‘a magazine of recreative reading for all’) and for Religious Tract Society publications such as the Leisure Hour (‘a Family Journal of Instruction and Recreation’), the Sunday at Home (‘a family magazine for Sabbath reading’) and The Picture Scrap Book, aimed at Victorian youth. In the early 1860s, Benwell experimented with hand painting 'dissolving views' on glass transparencies, projected onto a screen such that one view appears to pass into another.

In later life he focused mainly on painting watercolours of Middle-Eastern scenes, many of which are now sold at auction houses on the international market. He exhibited at various venues all over Britain, including the Royal Academy, The Royal Society of British Artists and the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours between 1865 and 1886.  He also exhibited at the London International Exhibitions of 1871, 1873 and 1874, and the Sydney (1879-80) and Melbourne (1880-81) International Exhibitions.

Joseph Austin Benwell was a prolific artist with a varied output ranging from woodcuts and engravings for books and journals to large paintings and watercolours. He is a good example of the genre of Victorian travelling artists who, before the days of modern mass media communications, were undeniably influential in shaping the British public’s perceptions of foreign lands and religions. Benwell has been recognised by several sources for his accurate depiction of life in nineteenth century eastern lands.

Artworks:  Introduction               

 (or click on picture categories below)

1. Watercolours:   Orientalist Paintings

'Three Camels at a water trough' (or well) 1874

2a. Engravings and Illustrations: Scenes from India 

'Weighing cotton at Bombay for the English market' Illustrated London News, 11 October 1862 

2b. Engravings and Illustrations: Victorian Religious Publications

 ‘Departure from Constantinople', ‘Notes of a Medical Missionary’ Chapter 9. from The Sunday at Home, a Family Magazine for Sabbath Reading,1861

 2c. Engravings and Illustrations: Miscellaneous and Travel artwork

'The Prince of Wales at Machpelah' 1862.  Source:  Frontispiece of 'Sunday at Home', 1863. Reference to Benwell as the artist in 'The Eclectic Review' 1862              (refer section on Miscellaneous and Travel artwork for more information) 

Nineteenth Century camel saddle blankets

Many of Benwell's Orientalist paintings depict camels with ornate saddle blankets made of rich eastern fabrics.

Bristol artist William Arnee Frank (1808-1897) (Joseph Austin Benwell's cousin) 

Art Research - other Bristol artists and miscellaneous  George Cumberland (1754-1848) - web page in development

Bibliography and references

Material researched and written by Dee Murray. Website compiled by Dee Murray. All rights reserved.

Photograph of Joseph Austin Benwell courtesy of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.

All images on this website are either scanned or photographed from the author’s own resources, appear with permission of owners/copyright holders, or are in the public domain in digital format via websites such as HathiTrust,, the Internet Archive ( or Google Books.


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